SMS Celebrates 20th Anniversary

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The text message — the technology that spawned a new language of punctuation signs and shortcut spellings — is 20 years old.

It was Dec. 3, 1992, when Neil Papworth, a text engineer in London, first texted “Merry Christmas” to Vodafone employee Richard Jarvis, who was at a Christmas party across town.

It was possible because the new generation of digital mobile phones incorporated letters on the number pad so that customers could put names of contacts into the phone book on their phones.

One year later Nokia introduced the first mobile phone that allowed customers to send text messages to others within the same network. Then in 1999, text messages could cross networks for the time. A new fever was born.

College kids and students embraced the new inexpensive technology, despite the fiddly operation of clicking though numbers to reach the desired letter of the alphabet. Growth in the service was dramatic. In 2002, mobile subscribers around the world sent more than 250 billion SMSs, according to research firm Informa Telecoms and Media.

“The characteristics that made SMS an essential mobile communications service [were] that it was inexpensive, universally available on devices and from mobile operators, and interoperable,” said Pamela Clark-Dickson, senior analyst for Informa.

The early messages were limited to 160 characters, necessitating short cuts. BCNU (be seeing you), 10Q (thank you), QQ (crying eyes) and LOL (laugh out loud) started to seep into the vernacular.

Politicians soon waded onto the scene. In 2004, then U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair took part in a live text chat. In 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama sent a text message to his supporters to announce his vice-presidential running mate.

“When texting was first conceived, many saw it as nothing more than a niche service,” said James Thickett, director of research at U.K. regulator Ofcom. “But texts have now surpassed traditional phone calls and meeting face-to-face, and [are] the most frequent way of keeping in touch for U.K. adults – revolutionizing the way we socialize, work and network.”

Today, with smartphone penetration increasing in the developed world, the humble SMS is being out-glamored by Internet-based services such as WhatsApp, Apple’s iMessage, Viber, KakaoTalk and Facebook Messenger. These come with enhanced user experiences and handy extra features.

In parts of the world including China, South Korea, Spain and Netherlands, traffic and revenues from text messaging are in decline.

According to the Swedish telecom regulator, the number of text messages sent in Sweden dropped for the first time in the first half of this year, to 8.1 billion from 9.2 billion in the same period a year earlier. In the U.K., the first half of 2012 saw quarterly declines in the volumes of SMS messages to 38.5 billion in the second quarter, from 39.1 billion the first quarter and from 39.7 billion in the last quarter of 2011.

But reports of the death of the text message are premature, says Srini Goplan, consumer director at Vodafone U.K.

“SMS has adapted over the years and remained a key part of the way that people communicate,” he said. “Texting has become so ubiquitous that it is now challenging the phone call as the simplest way for a wide variety of organizations and companies to keep in touch with people.”

Text messages are now sent to remind customers of dental appointments and notify them of grocery deliveries, he notes.

These days, you can send a text message to pay for car parking, to contact TV and radio shows and even make charity donations.

In the developing world, where smartphone penetration is low, SMS remains a key technology, enabling mobile money transfers, the sending of alerts on weather and planting advice for farmers, and distribution of health information for consumers.

Globally, SMS traffic is continuing to grow and stood at 7.4 trillion messages in 2011, up 44% from the year before, according to Informa.

“Overall the future remains bright for SMS, if only because it will be some years before [Internet-based] OTT messaging applications can achieve the same level of penetration as SMS,” said Informa’s Ms. Clark-Dickson.

“SMS remains the single most highly penetrated and truly interoperable mobile-messaging service, ” she said, “to the extent that Apple, for example, has enabled SMS termination for iMessage, and Informa understands that other OTT providers are endeavoring to do the same.”

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